Knocking On A Locked Door
Women in the Australian Film Industry

By August 26, 2015 Blog
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Guest writer, Monica Davidson.

Men dominate creative filmmaking in Australia, and always have. Male writers and directors are responsible for more than 80% of the feature films made since the 1970s, and until recently this disproportionate power had not been strenuously questioned. However, after new research has emerged the time has come to dig deeper and ask the tough questions about our ostensibly unbiased, meritocratic system.

According to new data on feature films released by Screen Australia, in 2014 women accounted for only 32% of producers, 23% of writers and 16% of directors. Although the numbers are slightly better in documentary, they are still far from parity. In decades past various forms of affirmative action addressed this inequity, but there has been no funding for women’s programs since the 1990s. The assumption at policy level seems to be that the problem was fixed, but the data proves this is not the case. The numbers of women creatives in film are stagnating, or declining, and the industry-wide blindness to the issue means there are no current gender-based initiatives to correct the problem.

Women in key creative film roles

The issue does not seem to be as pronounced for women in the emerging sector – in fact, film education and the early professional years present women with a very promising start to their screen careers. Women now make up slightly more than half of all the people working in the Australian screen industry, and women are much more likely than their male colleagues to have a Bachelors Degree or higher qualification. There’s also no gender imbalance in screen administration or government funding bodies, probably due to their need to abide by public service diversity policies. The problems occur in the creative and technical areas, and only after a few years of professional work. At the time when men with the same skills, qualifications and experience start to rise through the ranks into positions of creative leadership, women start to disappear.

The reasons are many, varied and controversial. Some argue that women in the middle of their careers leave the industry to have babies and don’t return. Although there is no film specific research on the subject, highly educated professional women in other fields don’t usually leave forever – and men are also likely to leave, but for different reasons (education and travel as opposed to family). In fact, the Committee for Economic Development in Australia (CEDA) asked female members of the business community what they thought were the main barriers to women’s equality in the workplace, and family barely made the top five. The top three barriers to women’s equality were workplace culture, lack of female leaders, and gender stereotypes. The same could easily be said of the film industry as well.

If the reasons for the problem are contentious, the answers are equally various and divisive. Affirmative action programs, production funding for women, quotas for gender equity in funding applications, mentoring for mid-career – together and separately these all present possible solutions. And for me, this is the good news. The problem is now on the table, being debated and discussed and unpacked in cafes, social media, educational circles and the press. Hopefully this new scrutiny will create a tide of change at both industry and policy level, and this time that change will last.

Monica Davidson is a documentary filmmaker, creative business advisor and academic who recently completed her Masters of Screen Arts and Business at AFTRS. Her graduating thesis was entitled Climbing the Celluloid Ladder: Women, Mentoring and Australian Feature Film. Monica is also the writer and director of the upcoming documentary feature Handbag, which practises affirmative action and has employed women exclusively in all on and off-screen roles.

2 Comments

  • Sandra Alexander says:

    This is research is enormously valuable work. Major factors of women dropping out of the industry are, like many other industries, the long hours and the requirement for travel. The problem is compounded in the film industry by firstly, the irregularity and changeability of hours in production, to provide for night shoots and secondly, the need to work on interstate, remote or international locations. All working families need child care, difficult to arrange and almost impossible to vary, especially at short notice. An irregular income doesn’t help. Part of the reason the agencies have a high proportion of women in key roles is that they are jobs that allow the women to stay involved in the industry they love, but don’t impose the vagaries of time and place that are part of physical production. Many other reasons of course.

  • Martin Baker says:

    Surely this “disproportionate power” can be overlooked ?, the doors are not locked. With today’s technology the only real barriers remaining are ones of imagination, creativity and writing ability and these are there for all of us, always have been. Want an “initiative to correct the problem”? nothing more current and non gender-based than a relatively cheap DSLR and web distribution, a few extra weekends can turn a short into a feature or web series. I’m sure there’s plenty of yet to be found wannabe onscreen talent out there dying for a chance. If the storytelling and creativity is compelling enough those with a need for content (forget cinema for now) will seek you out. Just go for it, create your own industry.